Friday, July 27, 2007

Blaming Religion: Hasty Generalizations and False Attributions

I would like to use a recent post by Michael in Moderate Christians - Take some responsibility, stop blaming Dawkins to clarify my position on the criticism of religion.

I agree with a vast majority of the claims that Michael makes, and with the tone in which many of them are made. However, there are a few areas in which I think the essay went astray. One involves a logical inference – a leap from the specific to the general that qualifies as an example of the fallacy ‘hasty generalization’. The other is a false attribution – an accusation that a group of people are guilty of something that they are not guilty of.

Hasty Generalization

The hasty generalization comes from making the case that something is true of a particular individual or small set of individuals, then asserting that the claim is true of a larger set, when the second claim is clearly false. It is a case of talking about, “this marble, which is red,” or even “these marbles, which are red,” to talking about marbles as if redness was intrinsic to all marbles.

In this case, it involves complaints about a group of people who write in protest of Dawkins and Harris’ tone, as if these were extremely important transgressions worthy of strong condemnation, yet refusing to condemn those who do worse – religious fundamentalists who are responsible for so much death, misery, and ignorance in the world. Indeed, one of the essential tools for riding the world of this suffering is to raise a more united voice against those who are responsible for this suffering. Yet, those who would deny women an education, or stand in the way of stem-cell research, or demand that Israel be restored to its biblical borders, are given a free pass, while those who raise a voice against those who are contributing to these ills are slapped down for their ‘tone’.

Another aspect of this point is to note that these people tend to condemn the critics of religion for their tone, without even addressing the issues of life, health, and well-being lost due to policies grounded on religious beliefs. It is as if to say these harms have no significance.

I agree with all of this.

However, Michael switches from talking about individuals who he claims are guilty of this charge, to using generic ‘group’ labels to make accusations of a whole set of people. As such, a set of statements that I would argue could be defended as demonstrably true, yield a set of conclusions that are demonstrably false or, at best, do not follow from the premises provided.

His argument would have worked much better if he had kept his focus on the specific wrongdoers he mentioned. Michael could have constructed a strong argument that says, “This is the wrong that I accuse these people of. This is my evidence that they are guilty. These are my reasons for believing that they are wrong.”

Any moral claim, “X is wrong,” contains an inherent assumption of universalizability – “Anybody who does anything relevantly similar to X is also guilty.” Specifically, in Michael’s case the argument would be, “These people are condemning the ‘tone’ of people like Dawkins and Harris, yet they are not condemning the greater wrongs – the life-taking, suffering-producing, ignorance-promoting wrongs of religious fundamentalists. It would seem that their priorities are a little screwed up, because we clearly need to take care of the very significant harms that religious fundamentalists are inflicting on others.”

In making this argument against a specific person for specific wrongs and all others who are like him or her, it is quite permissible to be as harsh as the circumstances deserve. Those who can be held accountable for the loss of life and health can legitimately be made the object of very harsh condemnation. This is not a plea for, “Be nice to these people or they will not like you.” It is a plea for “Be harsh, but at those who actually deserve it.”

If we are concerned with reducing the evil done in the world – the harms inflicted on real people – we should note that many of those harms are inflicted because of a human tendency to join tribes, where they view “us” as inherently superior to “them”. One of the most common tools used in this type of dynamic is to take individuals that one had put in the category of “them” and apply their errors to the whole group. It helps to explain why all Montages should hate all Capulets, why all Hatfields must hate all McCoys.

One of the ways to fight the effects if this type of tribalism is to condemn individuals for their wrongdoing and to use the moral implication of universalization to infer that the same can be said of all who perform relevantly similar actions in relevantly similar circumstances. This involves insisting that arguments take the form, “Here is an example of an individual who has done wrong, here is why it is wrong, and here is my evidence for believing these people are guilty.” It’s main characteristic is that it uses proper names and specific evidence, while it avoids gross overgeneralizations made against whole groups.

This method works even if it happens to be the case that everybody in a group is guilty of a particular wrongdoing. Because a moral argument implies, “All who do similar things in similar circumstances are similarly guilty,” if everybody in a particular group actually does similar things under similar circumstances, this argument paints them all guilty. However, the arguer does not have to make the dubious (and usually false) claim that this is the case.

False Attribution

I have spent a fair number of years defending moral realism – the idea that moral claims are capable of being objectively, knowably true. (There is another type of moral realism that says that moral claims were to mind-independent properties. I disagree with that form of realism, but I hold that statements about mental states and statements about relationships between mental states and states of affairs are capable of being objectively, knowably true.)

In all of those debates over the years, I have found that my allies in defense of moral realism have been conservatives, and substantially religious individuals. They have long held that there are moral facts and that it is perfectly appropriate to condemn those who get the moral facts wrong.

On the other hand, I have found myself arguing against people who have tended to be secular liberals. They are the ones who have advocated, “Thou shalt not speak ill of the beliefs of others,” because no point of view can be honestly said to be ‘better’ than any other. For decades they have advocated the doctrines of cultural relativism and post modernism, against a substantially religious crowd that condemned this view and nonsense.

I am pleased to see that the notion that criticism is permissible is now coming back into favor. I am somewhat dismayed to discover that the accusers are letting their allies who have been the most vocal opponents of condemnation off the hook, and making accusations against those who tried substantially to keep the practice of condemnation.

This is another example of the tribalism that I spoke about earlier. Because people in the ‘in-tribe’ are so eager to condemn those who belong to the out-tribe, they look for every minor transgression to pick on. However, people who do worse, but who happen to be fellow members of the in-tribe are let off the hook – even praised. Accusations are made, not on the basis of guilt, but on the basis of tribal membership.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


There's no doubt that much of what you say is philosophically correct and I agree with much of what you wrote but, in saying that, I think you missed the point that I was trying to make. I was propagandizing and politicizing. Perhaps my argument might have been more 'sound' if I did keep my focus on the wrongdoers but I don't believe it would have been as effective in terms of what I was attempting to achieve.

I wanted a reaction, I wanted my writing to do more than make people think. The problem that I often see (and this has happened throughout history) is that an individual will often excuse themselves from blame and dismiss the actions of their countrymen or piers as 'having nothing to do with me'. There's a tendency to say "Well, yes, you have a point but it doesn't apply to me, I'm not to blame, those people over there are the guilty ones." Another one I hear from theists when I criticize religion is "You're correct, those people are a bit loony but they don't follow the true teachings of Christ, it's nothing to do with me".

It happened in Nazi Germany. I don't want to get into a discussion about collective responsibility, we'd be here for too long, but far too many Germans believed that they were not to blame, that it was not their responsibility. As a result, very few took action at key points. As a German, born and bread, I can see this guilt reflected in Germany society.

The idea I was trying to convey is that unless you're willing to speak out, to take a stand, then you have no right to call yourself a moderate. We want to see action, not excuses.

Was I generalizing? Yes. Was it wrong of me in this case? No, I don't believe so.

But I could be wrong. Isn't it refreshing to hear someone say that? To admit they might be wrong? If only those that believed in God could do the same thing, I would hazard a guess that we'd all be much better for it. But that's another side issue :)